”Employing more people permanently is a management issue”

Examples show that higher education institutions can reduce the proportion of temporary employees. “But there is a reflexive attitude that employing people permanently is extremely risky,” says SULF’s Robert Andersson.

The types of time-limited position that are integral to the academic qualification system, such as postdocs, are generally regarded as necessary and unproblematic.

However, there are a number of other forms of employment that have been the subject of debate for many years, including in Universitetsläraren since at least 2002.

One reason for the existence of many fixed-term positions is externally funded research, where grants are short-term by nature. One solution that many have suggested is to increase the proportion of faculty funding so that the higher education institutions themselves could finance research in the longer term.
“Politicians say that there should being fewer fixed-term positions, but they don’t seem to be prepared to provide more money for direct grants to higher education institutions,” says Robert Andersson, head of negotiations at SULF.

Since politicians are not doing anything about the problem, Andersson believes that it is up to the higher education institutions themselves. He sees it as a management issue and an attitude issue.
“It is a tradition that exists in the sector. You might call it a reflexive attitude that employing people permanently is extremely risky.”

The danger would be that the department suddenly has too many employees. But Andersson believes that there is always a certain turnover of research and teaching staff. He thinks there could be more focus on the slightly longer term.
“There have always been people on sick leave and on parental leave and who have had other jobs and research funding and so on. So maybe departments could have the courage to employ ten lecturers even though they really only need eight to cover the teaching. Then they could offer more permanent positions and have good applicants and greater stability. It is important to get away from the idea that employing people is risky.”

Stockholm University has shown that it is possible to do something about the situation. Between 2012 and 2013, it reduced the proportion of employees on fixed-term contracts from 39.6 to 33.3 per cent. And after Norway’s government put pressure on universities to reduce the number of fixed-term employees, the percentage at the University of Tromsö fell by 40 per cent.

The most common fixed-term positions in higher education

The Higher Education Ordinance
Associate senior lecturer (biträdande lektor), 4–6 years. May be extended for a maximum of two years in total in certain circumstances.
Adjunct professor, up to 12 years.
Visiting professor, up to 5 years.
Teacher of fine, applied and performing arts subjects, up to 5+5 years.
Military teachers at the Swedish Defence University.

Collective agreements (state sector universities)
Postdoctoral fellow, 2–3 years. The employment may be extended in certain circumstances.
Adjunct teacher, 2 years. (Can be extended).

The Employment Protection Act (LAS)
General fixed-term employment, 12 months*.
Substitute position, 2 years*.
Probationary employment, 6 months.
Seasonal employment.
Employment after the age of 69. (Applicable from 1 January 2023. The previous age limit was 68.)

The Employment Ordinance
Employment for single, short-term periods.

 *The main rule is that the employment becomes permanent if the person has been employed for a total of more than 12 months during the previous five years.

 Source: Temporary Employment in Higher Education. The Swedish Higher Education Authority (UKÄ) 2024.

Universitetsläraren conforms strictly to journalistic principles and follows the media industry’s rules on publication and professional ethics. The magazine is free and independent of its owner, SULF – the Swedish Association of University Teachers and Researchers.
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